Tsipras aims to stave off defections in Greece over aid plan

By Theophilos Argitis & Marcus Bensasson

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras turned Tuesday to shoring up support at home for his plan to end a five-month standoff with creditors that has brought his nation to the edge of default.

Tsipras needs to ensure his coalition, ranging from Maoists to Social Democrats, will back proposals he outlined Monday that include eliminating early retirement options, raising the sales tax, increasing taxes on middle- and high-income earners and introducing a new levy for companies with annual profit of more than 500,000 euros ($568,000).

“Very large problems remain for a solution,” said Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “The Greek government -- somewhat surprising for a self-professed reform and anti- austerity government -- seems to have merely agreed to impose a lot more austerity through higher taxes, but offers relatively little commitment to genuine economic reform.”

Tsipras is seeking to assuage the left flank of his party - - some of whom want Greece to default on its debt altogether -- by focusing on tax increases for companies and high-income individuals instead of spending cuts. The Left Platform, which holds about 40 seats in parliament and is composed of former communists and others closely aligned with labor unions, could defeat the government if its members vote against the plan.

Emergency Summit

“Every lawmaker has a personal responsibility, to recognize and understand not just the urgency of the moment, but the urgency of the whole project,” Gabriel Sakellaridis, Tsipras’s spokesman, said in an interview with Mega TV. In a public relations blitz, Sakellaridis gave at least three television interviews in Athens Tuesday morning.

European leaders said at an emergency summit Monday in Brussels that Tsipras is finally getting serious after being criticized for lacking good faith in earlier talks. At the meeting, they agreed to step up the pace of negotiations to secure a breakthrough that leaders can sign off at the end of the week.

The possible deal got a resounding endorsement from Greece’s markets with government bonds and stocks rallying for the second day. The yield on the 2-year bond fell 313 basis points to 21.2 percent at 3:22 p.m. in Athens. The Athens Stock Exchange Index was trading 5 percent higher, after surging 9 percent on Monday.

Possible Defections

“It will remain a major challenge for the Greek prime minister to successfully pass a potential agreement through parliament,” George Saravelos, an analyst at Deutsche Bank AG wrote in a note to clients. “How the political process plays out largely depends on the number of parliament members the current government loses.”

Any substantial defections requiring the support of major opposition party New Democracy would open up the possibility of broader changes to the government or a referendum, said Saravelos, who calculates that between 10 and 40 Syriza lawmakers could dissent based on local media reports. Getting the support of New Democracy could be a challenge given the party’s pro-business stance and the proposed new corporate tax.

Tsipras “has to explain to the people why we failed in a negotiation and arrived at this result,” deputy parliament speaker and Syriza lawmaker Alexios Mitropoulos said Tuesday in a televised interview on Mega. “After five months of negotiations, I consider that, at the very least, the negotiation didn’t succeed.”

Internal Opposition

His remarks illustrate the kind of internal opposition Tsipras will have to overcome to secure backing for an agreement that runs against his party’s pledge to end austerity. While the agreement could get parliamentary approval with the help of votes from the opposition, the government signaled on Tuesday that without enough support from its own ranks, it could lose the ability to stay in power.

“If it doesn’t have the parliamentary majority with it, then it can’t remain a government,” Sakellaridis said.

The debate will shift back to Brussels on Wednesday when euro-area finance ministers meet to prepare the ground for a second, scheduled summit of European Union leaders that begins the following day.

The package of proposals represents “a certain step forward, but it was also said very clearly that we’re not yet where we need to be,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Brussels. “Hours of the most intensive deliberations lie ahead of us.”